21st Century University Students

In an article in The American Thinker in fall 2009, I described the difficulties that a professor with conservative views encounters on American campuses. For example, during eleven years in a senior administrative position, I trod the ever-present minefield of liberal dogma that thoroughly permeates the campus. Since that time, I stepped down from my administrative post and formally retired, but I am continuing to teach mathematics courses – largely to engineering and science majors. This fall, in my first teaching assignment in twelve years, I delivered a post-calculus course to approximately 200 sophomores and juniors. My goal here is to describe the nature of today’s students – at least as represented by the two hundred with whom I interacted, point out some differences from students in the 1990s and earlier, reflect on how the differences mirror societal changes, and finally to speculate on the implications these differences portend for the nation.

Here are the salient characteristics that I see in today’s university students, together with an indication of how their attitude/behavior differs from those of previous generations.

  • Despite a great diversity in race, sex and ethnic origin, there is a remarkable consistency in how students approach problem solving, differentiate what they think is important from what they see as trivial, and also how they interact with each other and with the faculty member. This consistency was highlighted by almost unbelievable similarities that I saw in their exam papers: almost all make the exact same mistakes, concentrate their study on the same right – or wrong – topics, and ask questions that reveal a scarily uniform train of thought. This is of course an exaggeration, but there were times when I wondered whether they were all cloned from a common model. Certainly, the diversity of thought and behavior was far greater among students in previous generations.
  • Related, but not identical, was a lack of creativity and originality that I observed. This was surprising because in terms of academic performance, the students were strong. The university has been working diligently for more than 20 years to upgrade the quality of the student body. And as far as I can tell, it has succeeded. The scores on my exams – the level of which was comparable to those I administered 15 years ago – were higher. But the students achieved the higher scores by careful attention to method, lots of studying, working collaboratively when appropriate, memorization of technique and by dint, perhaps, of a higher level of innate intelligence. What I didn’t see was the unusual student who solved a problem by a clever, innovative method, distinct from the procedures learned from me or the text. Average performance might have been lower a generation ago, but I rarely failed to see a clever solution (by an unexpected method) on at least one student’s paper for each exam. Not today!
  • Also related, but distinct from the previous two points, I saw few (if any) students whose prime objective in the course was to learn well a distinctive branch of mathematics. In the past I always encountered students – not always the best – who seemed to enjoy learning a new mathematical subject and who would approach me for suggestions on what they could do (beyond class) to enhance their knowledge of the subject. I saw none of that this past fall. The prime goal, even for the best students, seemed to be to earn the highest grade possible and their entire approach to the course was in pursuit of that objective. Getting good grades was always important, but for today’s students it seems to be the only objective. In a related vein, one senses that they are at the university primarily to collect a degree – which they see as a ticket to a job or a graduate program – and little attention is paid to the accumulation of knowledge, wisdom or moral values.
  • On the plus side, my students were virtually always well-behaved, respectful, polite and pleasant to interact with in person. This was a welcome change from some of the surly and immature behavior that I too often witnessed (admittedly decreasingly) over the years from the 60s to the 90s.
  • In a somewhat similar, but definitely less encouraging spirit, I found today’s students too deferential. They seem to have too much respect for authority. They never challenged anything I said, questioned my judgment or doubted that I was an oracle dispensing the concrete pieces of information that they required. I sense that they are used to being told what to do by their superiors, that they rarely question the content of the “wisdom” that their elders supply, but rather they are programmed to believe what they are told and to follow orders. I might be overstating this but there was not an iconoclast in the bunch.
  • Finally, twelve years ago, students didn’t send emails to faculty. Now they have no hesitation whatsoever. And they send the most outrageous messages. They whine about missing quizzes because of illness and demand a makeup, plead for advance information on upcoming exams and demand redress for their poor and undeserved fate on exams. They don’t complain about the syllabus, my teaching style, the amount of material to be covered – only about exams and their grade. But as we shall see below, this is completely consistent with what I described above.

The changes in student attitudes and behavior are not accidental. Today’s university students are a product of a government school system, which teaches them that modern society (including its political, economic and even its cultural components) is too complex to be understood by the average citizen and its direction must be entrusted to professionals and experts. They are taught according to an increasingly uniform national curriculum that belittles non-conformity and drums into their heads the primacy of multiculturalism, global climate change, egalitarianism, central planning, secularism and the illegitimacy of any exceptionalism – American or otherwise. Finally, they are imbued with the idea that their highest objective should be to get credentialed and connected so that they can enter the Ruling Class so aptly described by Angelo Cordevilla in the American Spectator last summer. They are also a product of a society that reinforces the baneful lessons they are taught in school; a society in which: lack of feasance to the prevailing wisdom is punished by marginalization and scorn; morals are relative and no value system is more worthy than any other; deference to professional authority is encouraged and individual curiosity, initiative and responsibility is demeaned; and respect is due to those who help one to gain entry to the Ruling Class, while contempt is reserved for those who stand in one’s way.

It does not augur well. While I suspect that many of today’s students will make good managers, bureaucrats and competent engineers and scientists, I wonder how many Mark Zuckerbergs or Sergei Brins we shall produce.

Compared to the unkempt, undisciplined and unruly students that I taught 35 years ago, today’s students are a delight – hard-working, self-disciplined and pleasant. But unfortunately also a bit boring and predictable, except when they are tenaciously arguing for a higher grade. Two hundred more will arrive at my lectern at the end of January. I am trying to decide whether to supply them with the link to this article.
This article also apperared in The Intellectual Conservative at